The red varietal Zinfandel is planted in over 10% of California’s vineyards. It produces a robust, fruit forward wine that is very popular in America as well as a semi sweet red blush (White Zinfandel) which is even more so. Although many writers in the late nineteenth and twentieth century liked to refer to it as “America’s grape”, it did not originate here.
After finding similarities between Zinfandel and Primitivo, an Italian varietal found in Puglia, Italy (on the map of Italy this region is ‘the heel of the boot”) the two grapes were found to be genetically identical in 1933. Further historical and genetic research led to the theory that both grapes were brought to their respective countries from, of all places, Croatia. Then in 2003, they were genetically proven to be an offspring of the grape known as Crljenak Kastelanski, a total of nine vines bearing this grape being found in a single vineyard in Kastel Novi, Croatia.
The varietal was introduced from Hungary to the east coast of the US in 1829 where it was grown in hothouses and prized for its early ripening (hence Primitivo’s being named for being the first grape to ripen). It was brought to California in the 1850s during the Gold Rush where it exploded in popularity, becoming the most widely planted grape in California.
During Prohibition, many of the vines were ripped up and replaced with Petite Sirah and Alicant Bouchet, which transported more easily for home winemaking. Zinfandel was largely forgotten, being used mainly for bulk fortified wines, but some producers with very old vines wanted to keep the varietal alive.
One such producer was Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home, who in 1972 decided to make a rose of Zinfandel and sell it under the name of Oeil de Perdix. He legally was required to change the name to White Zinfandel. In 1975 he experienced a stuck fermentation. This occurs when the yeast dies before the sugar is completely converted to alcohol, resulting a lower alcohol somewhat sweet wine. He sold it anyway and it was an instant hit that made him a wealthy man. Modern day white Zinfandel still a very popular wine. The popularity of the wine also saved many of the old vines from being ripped up in premium growing areas until red Zinfandel came back into fashion and they came to their own.
Zinfandel vines are vigorous and do best in warm but not hot climates. If the climate is too hot the grapes ripen too quickly and become over ripe with a raisin like quality. Also the high sugar levels result in wines becoming very high in alcohol in order to be fermented to dryness. High alcohol can result in a “heat” to the wine. Many Zinfandels can reach alcohol levels of over 16%.
Red Zinfandels are very popular wines. The big fruit flavors make it an ideal barbeque wine and it is easy drinking on its own. It goes very well with glazed ham at Easter. The wine does pick up variable characteristics of its terroir. Those from Dry Creek in Sonoma tend toward bright fruit, balanced acidity, and blackberry anise and pepper on the palate. Dashe, at $19.99, is one of my favorite Zinfandels, with complex black fruit flavors intertwined with pepper and earth.
Zinfandel from Napa Valley tends more toward red fruits, cedar and vanilla. Storybook Mountain, at a weighty price of $43.99, is probably the best Zinfandel I’ve ever had. It is almost Cab-like with remarkable finesse and balance between fruit, acid and tannin.
Sonoma’s Russian River Valley tends to have a cooler climate, resulting in slightly lower alcohol, spicy wines with more red fruit. Deloach is an excellent example from here for $16.99. Lodi, home of some of the oldest plantings produces Zinfandels rich in dark fruits and can be somewhat complex, but can tend toward overipeness. Lodi is the source of many Zinfandels with Michael-David winery’s Earthquake leading the way at $25.99, its massive fruit exploding on the palate. Also very good is The Zin ($19.99) and Brazin at $17.99. There are many very nice Zinfandels that are designated “Sonoma County” so the fruit is sourced Dry Creek, Russian River and other places as well. Seghesio’s is especially good at $18.99 and Ridge’s Three Valley at $25.99 is very complex and full of fruit.
If you like big, full bodied flavorful wines you have to try Zinfandel if you already haven’t. You will see why although it can’t correctly be called “America’s Wine” it can be called one of America’s most popular. Enjoy!